If pursuing disadvantage after the disadvantage has become obvious is irrational, then rejection of reason is the prime characteristic of folly. According to the Stoics, reason was the “thinking fire” that directs the affairs of the world, and the emperor or ruler of the state was considered to be “the servant of divine reason [appointed] to maintain order on earth.” The theory was comforting, but then as now “divine reason” was more often than not overpowered by non-rational human frailties—ambition, anxiety, status-seeking, face-saving, illusions, self-delusions, fixed prejudices. Although the structure of human thought is based on logical procedure from premise to conclusion, it is not proof against the frailties and the passions.
Rational thought clearly counseled the Trojans to suspect a trick when they woke to find the entire Greek army had vanished, leaving only a strange and monstrous prodigy beneath their walls. Rational procedure would have been, at the least, to test the Horse for concealed enemies as they were urgently advised to do by Capys the Elder, Laocoon and Cassandra. That alternative was present and available yet discarded in favor of self-destruction.
In the case of the Popes, reason was perhaps less accessible. They were so imbued by the rampant greed and grab and uninhibited self-gratification of their time that a rational response to the needs of their constituency was almost beyond their scope. It would have required a culture of different values. One might suppose that an ordinary instinct of self-preservation would have taken notice of the rising dissatisfaction lapping like flood water at their feet, but their view of the Papacy was temporal and secular, and they were too immersed in princely wars and in private consumption and display to take alarm at the intangible of discontent. The Papacy’s folly lay not so much in being irrational as in being totally estranged from its appointed task.
The successive measures taken with regard both to the American colonies and to Vietnam were so plainly grounded in preconceived fixed attitudes and so regularly contrary to common sense, rational inference and cogent advice that, as folly, they speak for themselves.
In the operations of government, the impotence of reason is serious because it affects everything within reach—citizens, society, civilization. It was a problem of deep concern to the Greek founders of Western thought. Euripides, in his last plays, conceded that the mystery of moral evil and of folly could no longer be explained by external cause, by the bite of Atē, as if by a spider, or by other intervention of the gods. Men and women had to confront it as part of their being. His Medea knows herself to be controlled by passion “stronger than my purposes.” Plato, some fifty years later, desperately wanted man to grasp and never let go of the “sacred golden cord of reason,” but ultimately he too had to acknowledge that his fellow-beings were anchored in the life of feelings, jerked like puppets by the strings of desires and fears that made them dance. When desire disagrees with the judgment of reason, he said, there is a disease of the soul, “And when the soul is opposed to knowledge, or opinion or reason which are her natural laws, that I call folly.”
When it came to government, Plato assumed that a wise ruler would take most care of what he loved most, that is, what fitted best with his own interests, which would be equivalent to the best interests of the state. Since he was not confident that the rule always operated the way it should, Plato advised as a cautionary procedure that the future guardians of the state should be watched and tested during their period of maturing to ensure that they conducted themselves according to the rule.
With the advent of Christianity, personal responsibility was given back to the external and supernatural, at the command of God and the Devil. Reason returned for a brief brilliant reign in the 18th century, since when Freud has brought us back to Euripides and the controlling power of the dark, buried forces of the soul, which not being subject to the mind are incorrigible by good intentions or rational will.
Chief among the forces affecting political folly is lust for power, named by Tacitus as “the most flagrant of all the passions.” Because it can only be satisfied by power over others, government is its favorite field of exercise. Business offers a kind of power, but only to the very successful at the very top, and without the dominion and titles and red carpets and motorcycle escorts of public office. Other occupations—sports, sciences, the professions and the creative and performing arts—offer various satisfactions but not the opportunity for power. They may appeal to status-seekers and, in the form of celebrity, offer crowd worship and limousines and prizes, but these are the trappings of power, not the essence. Government remains the paramount area of folly because it is there that men seek power over others—only to lose it over themselves.
Thomas Jefferson, who held more and higher offices than most men, took the sourest view of it. “Whenever a man has cast a longing eye on [office],” he wrote to a friend, “a rottenness begins in his conduct.” His contemporary across the Atlantic, Adam Smith, was if anything more censorious. “And thus Place … is the end of half the labors of human life; and is the cause of all the tumult and bustle, all the rapine and injustice which avarice and ambition have introduced into this world.” Both were speaking of moral failure, not of competence. When that comes into question, it gains no higher rating from other statesmen. In the 1930s, when a chairman was being sought for the Senate investigation of the munitions industry, a leader of the peace movement asked the advice of Senator George Norris. Ruling himself out as too old, Norris went down the list of his colleagues, crossing off one after the other as too lazy, too stupid, too close to the Army, as moral cowards or overworked or in poor health or having conflict of interest or facing re-election. When he had finished he had eliminated all but Senator Gerald Nye, the only one out of the 96 whom he deemed to have the competence, independence and stature for the task. Much the same opinion in different circumstances was pronounced by General Eisenhower in discussing the need for inspired leaders to create a United States of Europe as the only way to preserve Europe’s security. He did not think it would happen, because “Everyone is too cautious, too fearful, too lazy, and too ambitious (personally).” Odd and notable is the appearance of lazy in both catalogues.
A greater inducement to folly is excess of power. After he had conceived his wonderful vision of philosopher-kings in the Republic, Plato began to have doubts and reached the conclusion that laws were the only safeguard. Too much power given to anything, like too large a sail on a vessel, he believed, is dangerous; moderation is overthrown. Excess leads on the one hand to disorder and on the other to injustice. No soul of man is able to resist the temptation of arbitrary power, and there is “No one who will not under such circumstances become filled with folly, the worst of diseases.” His kingdom will be undermined and “all his power will vanish from him.” Such indeed was the fate that overtook the Renaissance Papacy to the point of half, if not all, of its power; and Louis XIV, although not until after his death; and—if we consider the American Presidency to confer excess of power—Lyndon Johnson, who was given to speaking of “my air force” and thought his position entitled him to lie and deceive; and, most obviously, Richard Nixon.
Mental standstill or stagnation—the maintenance intact by rulers and policy-makers of the ideas they started with—is fertile ground for folly. Montezuma is a fatal and tragic example. Leaders in government, on the authority of Henry Kissinger, do not learn beyond the convictions they bring with them; these are “the intellectual capital they will consume as long as they are in office.” Learning from experience is a faculty almost never practiced. Why did American experience of supporting the unpopular party in China supply no analogy to Vietnam? And the experience of Vietnam none for Iran? And why has none of the above conveyed any inference to preserve the present government of the United States from imbecility in El Salvador? “If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us!” lamented Samuel Coleridge. “But passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives us is a lantern on the stern which shines only on the waves behind us.” The image is beautiful but the message misleading, for the light on the waves we have passed through should enable us to infer the nature of the waves ahead.
In its first stage, mental standstill fixes the principles and boundaries governing a political problem. In the second stage, when dissonances and failing function begin to appear, the initial principles rigidify. This is the period when, if wisdom were operative, re-examination and re-thinking and a change of course are possible, but they are rare as rubies in a backyard. Rigidifying leads to increase of investment and the need to protect egos; policy founded upon error multiplies, never retreats. The greater the investment and the more involved in it the sponsor’s ego, the more unacceptable is disengagement. In the third stage, pursuit of failure enlarges the damages until it causes the fall of Troy, the defection from the Papacy, the loss of a trans-Atlantic empire, the classic humiliation in Vietnam.
Persistence in error is the problem. Practitioners of government continue down the wrong road as if in thrall to some Merlin with magic power to direct their steps. There are Merlins in early literature to explain human aberration, but freedom of choice does exist—unless we accept the Freudian unconscious as the new Merlin. Rulers will justify a bad or wrong decision on the ground, as a historian and partisan wrote of John F. Kennedy, that “He had no choice,” but no matter how equal two alternatives may appear, there is always freedom of choice to change or desist from a counter-productive course if the policy-maker has the moral courage to exercise it. He is not a fated creature blown by the whims of Homeric gods. Yet to recognize error, to cut losses, to alter course, is the most repugnant option in government.
For a chief of state, admitting error is almost out of the question. The American misfortune during the Vietnam period was to have had Presidents who lacked the self-confidence for the grand withdrawal. We come back again to Burke: “Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom, and a great Empire and little minds go ill together.” The test comes in recognizing when persistence in error has become self-damaging. A prince, says Machiavelli, ought always to be a great asker and a patient hearer of truth about those things of which he has inquired, and he should be angry if he finds that anyone has scruples about telling him the truth. What government needs is great askers.
Refusal to draw inference from negative signs, which under the rubric “wooden-headedness” has played so large a part in these pages, was recognized in the most pessimistic work of modern times, George Orwell’s 1984, as what the author called “Crimestop.” “Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments … and of being bored and repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity.”
The question is whether or how a country can protect itself from protective stupidity in policy-making, which in turn raises the question whether it is possible to educate for government. Plato’s scheme, which included breeding as well as educating, was never tried. A conspicuous attempt by another culture, the training of the mandarins of China for administrative function, produced no very superior result. The mandarins had to pass through years of study and apprenticeship and weeding out by a series of stiff examinations, but the successful ones did not prove immune to corruption and incompetence. In the end they petered out in decadence and ineffectiveness.
Another such scheme used aliens. The Turkish Janissaries were the better-known military arm of a larger body—the Kapi Kullari, or Slave Institution—which filled every civil post from palace cook to Grand Vizier. Made up of Christian children taken from their parents and brought up and exhaustively trained by the Ottoman Turks for official functions in what may have been the most complete educational system ever devised, they were legally slaves of the Sultan, converted to Islam, forbidden to have families or own property. Free of these distractions, it was supposed they would be able to devote themselves singlemindedly to the state and its sovereign, on whom they were entirely dependent for pay and the necessities of life. The Sultan thus acquired a body not only of first-class administrators, but of strong supporters of his absolutism. Although the system worked to excellent effect, it did not save the Ottoman Empire from slow degeneration; nor, in the end, could the system save itself. In the course of time, the military branch gained growing power, defied the marriage ban and assumed hereditary rights, perpetuated themselves as a permanent and dominant clan, and eventually, in inevitable challenge to the ruler, attempted to seize power in overt revolt. They were slaughtered and destroyed, bringing down the rest of the Slave Institution with them, while the Grand Turk dwindled into dotage.
In 17th-century Europe, after the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War, Prussia, when it was still Brandenburg, determined to create a strong state by means of a disciplined army and a trained civil service. Applicants for the civil positions, drawn from commoners in order to offset the nobles’ control of the military, had to complete a course of study covering political theory, law and legal philosophy, economics, history, penology and statutes. Only after passing through various stages of examination and probationary terms of office did they receive definitive appointments and tenure and opportunity for advancement. The higher civil service was a separate branch, not open to promotion from the middle and lower levels.
The Prussian system proved so effective that the state was able to survive both military defeat by Napoleon in 1807 and the revolutionary surge of 1848. But by then it had begun to congeal, like the mandarins, losing many of its most progressive citizens in emigration to America. Prussian energies, however, succeeded in 1871 in uniting the German states in an empire under Prussian hegemony. Its very success contained the seed of ruin, for it nourished the arrogance and power-hunger that from 1914 through 1918 was to bring it down.
Political shock moved the English to give attention to the problem. Neither the loss of America nor the storm waves of the French Revolution shook their system of government, but in the mid-19th century, when the rumble from below was growing louder, the revolutions of 1848 on the Continent had effect. Instead of taking refuge in reactionary panic, as might have been expected, the authorities, with commendable enterprise, ordered an investigation of their own government practices, which were then virtually the private preserve of the propertied class. The result was a report on the need for a permanent civil service to be based on training and specialized skills and designed to provide continuity and maintenance of the long view as against transient issues and political passions. Though strongly resisted, the system was adopted in 1870. It has produced distinguished civil servants, but also Burgess, MacLean, Philby and Blunt. The history of British government in the last hundred years suggests that factors other than the quality of its civil service determine a country’s fate.
In the United States, the civil service was established chiefly as a barrier to patronage and the pork-barrel, rather than in search of excellence. By 1937, a presidential commission, finding the system inadequate, was urging the development of a “real career service … requiring personnel of the highest order, competent, highly trained, loyal, skilled in their duties by reason of long experience, and assured of continuity.” After much effort and some progress, that goal is still not reached, but even if it had been, it would not affect elected officials and high appointments—that is, government at the top.
In America, where the electoral process is drowning in commercial techniques of fund-raising and image-making, we may have completed a circle back to a selection process as unconcerned with qualifications as that which made Darius King of Persia. When he and six fellow conspirators, as recorded by Herodotus, overthrew the reigning despot, they discussed what kind of government—whether a monarchy of one or an oligarchy of the wisest men—they should establish. Darius argued that they should keep to the rule of one and obtain the best government by choosing “the very best man in the whole state.” Being persuaded, the group agreed to ride out together next morning and he whose horse was the first to neigh at sunrise should be King. By ruse of a clever groom who tethered a favorite mare at the critical spot, Darius’ horse performed on time and his fortunate master, thus singled out as the best man for the job, ascended the throne.
Factors other than random selection subdue the influence of the “thinking fire” on public affairs. For the chief of state under modern conditions, a limiting factor is too many subjects and problems in too many areas of government to allow solid understanding of any of them, and too little time to think between fifteen-minute appointments and thirty-page briefs. This leaves the field open to protective stupidity. Meanwhile bureaucracy, safely repeating today what it did yesterday, rolls on as ineluctably as some vast computer, which, once penetrated by error, duplicates it forever.
Above all, lure of office, known in our country as Potomac fever, stultifies a better performance of government. The bureaucrat dreams of promotion, higher officials want to extend their reach, legislators and the chief of state want re-election; and the guiding principle in these pursuits is to please as many and offend as few as possible. Intelligent government would require that the persons entrusted with high office should formulate and execute policy according to their best judgment, the best knowledge available and a judicious estimate of the lesser evil. But re-election is on their minds, and that becomes the criterion.
Aware of the controlling power of ambition, corruption and emotion, it may be that in the search for wiser government we should look for the test of character first. And the test should be moral courage. Montaigne adds, “Resolution and valor, not that which is sharpened by ambition but that which wisdom and reason may implant in a well-ordered soul.” The Lilliputians in choosing persons for public employment had similar criteria. “They have more regard for good morals than for great abilities,” reported Gulliver, “for, since government is necessary to mankind, they believe … that Providence never intended to make management of publick affairs a mystery, to be comprehended only by a few persons of sublime genius, of which there are seldom three born in an age. They suppose truth, justice, temperance and the like to be in every man’s power: the practice of which virtues, assisted by experience and a good intention, would qualify any man for service of his country, except where a course of study is required.”
While such virtues may in truth be in every man’s power, they have less chance in our system than money and ruthless ambition to prevail at the ballot box. The problem may be not so much a matter of educating officials for government as educating the electorate to recognize and reward integrity of character and to reject the ersatz. Perhaps better men flourish in better times, and wiser government requires the nourishment of a dynamic rather than a troubled and bewildered society. If John Adams was right, and government is “little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago,” we cannot reasonably expect much improvement. We can only muddle on as we have done in those same three or four thousand years, through patches of brilliance and decline, great endeavor and shadow.